Polar Islam: Muslim Communities in Russia’s Arctic Cities

Marlene Laruelle & Sophie Hohmann. Problems of Post-Communism. Volume 67, Issue 4-5. 2020.


Russia’s Arctic cities have always constituted a pioneer front, the last “frontier” (in the sense also used in American history) of the Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the Soviet regime, these cities have had to reinvent themselves. Some saw their resources depleted and/or were hit hard by the socioeconomic changes of the 1990s: Vorkuta, a former Gulag based on coal exploitation, for instance, has seen its population shrink from 115,646 in 1989 to 58,133 in 2017. Meanwhile, new cities created in the 1970s and early 1980s, mostly in the Khanty-Mansi and Yamalo-Nenets autonomous districts, the two oil and gas hearts of Russia, have been booming: with 100,000 and 116,000 inhabitants, respectively, Noyabrsk, and Novyi Urengoy are prime examples of very young cities that display all the attributes of urban life. Whether depleting, booming, or stagnating, Arctic cities continue to attract a relatively young and mobile population that moves to the Far North to accumulate financial and social capital and acquire unique work experience. As discussed in the introduction, the latest wave of newcomers to these pioneering fronts have been migrants from the North Caucasus, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia, who have brought with them some of their cultural practices, including religious ones.

This article advances the notion of “Polar Islam” to describe the birth and structuring of Muslim communities in Russia’s Arctic cities. It does not assert that local conditions have created an entirely specific Islam; most of the features attributed here to “Polar Islam” can easily be found in other regions of Russia such as a growing multiethnicity, fight over the institutional control of communities, diverging ideological interpretations of Islam, and securitization trends. Yet the climatic conditions, remoteness, and heavy industrial character of these cities contribute to accentuating certain characteristics that mold the social landscape in which Muslims live, thereby offering a fascinating regional case study of the development of Islam. This article articulates a number of different research fields, including migration studies and urban studies, with the aim of understanding the birth of this Polar Islam as not only a byproduct of labor migration flows to Russia’s industrial towns, but also a new feature of Arctic urban culture and its growing multicultural environment. It first explores the emergence of Islamic symbols—mosques—on the Arctic urban landscape, and the institutional struggles going on around the “the control” of this Polar Islam. It then delves into Muslim communities’ cultural adaptation to their new Arctic identity.

This research is based on fieldwork conducted in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 in Russia’s main Arctic cities (Murmansk and the surrounding Kola Peninsula mining cities, Arkhangelsk, Severodvinsk, Naryan Mar, Vorkuta, Salekhard, Norilsk, Dudinka, Yakutsk, and Mirnyi). It draws on primary data on migration and mosque construction; secondary sources such as local newspapers; and semi-structured interviews with local experts, officials (city council MPs, Federal Migration Services and Department of Interethnic Relations representatives), imams, and communities of believers, as well as with migrants and their associations.

Polar Islam in Stone: Institutionalization and Mosque Construction

Russia’s Arctic cities have become very coveted territory for the institutional expansion of Islam, embodied chiefly by the fight over mosques. Almost all cities have a Muslim community/association registered by the administration, but not necessarily a religious building. The latter may be a mosque, a more modest prayer house, or just a prayer room. As seen in Table 1, we counted 59 officially registered mosques, prayer houses, and prayer rooms—but many cities have also informal, non-registered spaces, for instance in a private apartment or in a workplace. The difference in status is explicable not only by the size of the Muslim community but also by the willingness of the municipal authorities to recognize the status of Islam in their city and to deal with the reluctance expressed by certain local constituencies. One can immediately notice the preeminence of the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous district and the more southern Khanty-Mansi Yugra one, followed by Yakutia, while the Nenets autonomous okrug and Chukotka remain the only two Arctic regions with no mosques or Islamic prayer houses/rooms registered so far.

The Institutional Fight for the Control of Polar Islam

Since a decision taken by Empress Catherine II in 1788, Islam in Russia has been supervised by a muftiate based in Ufa, in today’s Bashkortostan. This institution has long been seen as a purely administrative umbrella organization that regulates the state-religion relationship, without any religious legitimacy compared to that of, for instance, the Ottoman Caliphate. In Soviet times, the institution was transformed into a Spiritual Board for Muslims of Russia (CDUMES); other Boards were created for the North Caucasus, for Azerbaijan, and for Central Asia. Upon the collapse of the Soviet regime, the CDUMES, highly divided by internal conflicts, failed to maintain territorial unity and divided into two Spiritual Boards, one for Russia’s European part (CDUMR), the direct heir of the CDUMES and led since 1980 by Talgat Tadzhuddin, and another for Russia’s Asian part (DUM AChR), led by Nafigulla Ashirov and based in Tobolsk. This division was accentuated in 1996 by the birth of a third, competing structure: the Moscow-based Council of Muftis, led by Ravil Gainutdin. For two decades, the three institutions have been fighting to take control over the rapidly growing Muslim communities in Siberia, the Far East, and the Far North.

As studied by Stéphane Dudoignon, Siberian mullahs have been hesitant to engage with the central authorities since the 19th century, compensating for their lack of finances with a strong communitarian structure. This stance has continued in the post-Soviet period, with the DUM AChR vocally disagreeing with the two competing institutions. The conflict was partly solved by the absorption of the DUM AChR into the Council of Muftis in 1998. Other, smaller, regional Spiritual Boards that emerged during the tumultuous 1990s—a total of more than 80 are registered today—have gradually reintegrated into the chain of command of the two main federal institutions, even if some of their internal tensions persist (the Tatar Spiritual Board, for instance, decided to join the Council of Muftis and not the CDUMR). Discussions about the need to create a new regional Spiritual Board for the Far North have been on the table for years, without any success so far. Yamal communities have taken the lead on this, with the creation, in December 2017, of a new regional Spiritual Board of Yamal Muslims, part of the CDUMR, but it remains to be seen if the latter can bring in other Arctic communities, whose loyalties may instead be given to other regional entities.

The competition between the Ufa-based CDUMR and the Moscow-based Council of Muftis continues to this day, especially on the issue of obtaining the affiliation of new Muslim communities. The Yakutsk mosque, for instance, remains loyal to the DUM AChR, while the Magadan one is under the umbrella of the Kazan Muftiate, both part of the Council of Muftis. This rivalry between the CDUMR and the Council is grounded in politics, ideology, and ethnicity. It is political because the Council of Muftis can rely on support from the presidential administration and is often decried for being a Kremlin-backed entity whose mission is to strengthen Russian state control over Islamic institutions and divide the Islamic community into several administrative entities. It is ideological because the Council of Muftis supports a more pro-active policy of promoting the rights of Russia’s Muslim citizens, while the Ufa-based CDUMR, due to the personality of its leader, Talgat Tadzhuddin, often positions Islam as a secondary loyalty and pays lip service to the predominance of the Moscow Patriarchate. And it is ethnic because this institutional rivalry sometimes—but not systematically—overlaps with a struggle between North Caucasians (at the Council of Muftis) and Tatars-Bashkirs (at the Ufa-based CDUMR) over the control of mosques.

Historically, Tatar-Bashkir theological figures were at the forefront of the conquest of Siberia and Turkestan and dominated the pan-Russian religious landscape, while North Caucasians stayed in their home region—adhering to the Shafi’i rite and to Sufi brotherhoods as opposed to the Hanafi rite followed by the rest of Russia’s Muslims, they were not seen as legitimate religious providers. However, since the 2000s, which saw the massive emigration of Dagestanis and Chechens from the North Caucasus and the establishment of jamaat (communities) in all of Russia’s big cities, including those in Siberia and the Far North, North Caucasian imams now position themselves to compete with the historical leadership of the Tatars-Bashkirs.

Tajiks have also emerged as a new pool for imamship, as they are often considered more religious than other Muslims and better-trained in Islamic theology: some speak Arabic and have been trained abroad in Egypt, the Gulf countries, or Pakistan. The fact that a large number of Tajiks have been present in Russia since the civil war of the 1990s has contributed to making them a visible part of Russia’s Islamic clergy today. Often, to avoid divisions along ethnic lines, Muslim communities divide responsibilities among representatives of different nationalities: if the imam is Tatar or Tajik, then the administrative representative of the community—the one in charge of the relationship with the local authorities—will be from the North Caucasus, and vice versa.

The question of securing the permanent presence of an Islamic “clergy” is a real quandary for Arctic Muslim communities. The community is in charge of finding its own imam and turns to the Council of Muftis and the CDUMR to receive someone—a key moment where institutional affiliation to one of the two competing bodies has to be decided. As the imam is paid what the community can collect, only big cities with quite sizable communities can offer a decent salary that would attract an imam trained in one of Russia’s prestigious Islamic institutions. Small communities, meanwhile, often have no choice but to ask a devoted member who has another job to become the imam—the Dagestani imam of Vorkuta, for instance, previously worked as a miner. Another solution is to invite a migrant without any other professional opportunities to come. This is the case, for instance, of the Muslim community of Labytnangi, a small city near Salekhard famous for its high-security prison, which invited a Tajik man to bring his family and become their imam.

In these cases, the Council of Muftis and the CDUMR work with the selected migrant to train him to become an imam and to be sure he applies for citizenship—only Russian nationals can receive the official status of an imam. As Arctic communities are not the most attractive on the market for religious “clergy,” they rarely get imams who received classical training and have to limit themselves to “second-rank” individuals who become imam after a more zigzagging personal destiny. For instance, the main imam (imam khatib, the one leading the Friday prayers) of the Yakutsk mosque is an Ingush, a former Afganets (Soviet soldier who fought in the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-89) who worked in the construction sector and was later trained in theology in Uzbekistan and in Egypt. The young imam seconding him for everyday namaz (prayers) said he formed himself for the imamship in the Ferghana Valley during the Tajik civil war (1992-97).

Building a Mosque: The Main Battlefield of Polar Islam

In a context of high securitization around everything Muslim, the construction of new mosques may raise protests from some segments of the population concerned about the arrival of “Muslims” or “migrants” in their neighborhood. Compared to Europe, Russia has quite a low level of Islamophobia, yet it is often difficult to dissociate acts of xenophobia against Caucasians and Central Asians from specific acts of Islamophobia. Some Russian nationalist groups have been quite active in Arctic cities: in the 1990s and early 2000s, Vorkuta was famous for its strong skinhead scene, and in 2014 a local nationalist group circulated on social media a photo of them posing under the Russian imperial flag with the slogan “Vorkuta without a mosque!” A powerful leather-clad biker club, close to far-right groups, continues to occupy part of the city’s cultural scene. Many of the “Gazprom cities” in the Yamal and Khanty-Mansi districts likewise had tense interethnic relations in the 2000s, although these are now better regulated by local law enforcement agencies.

Beyond Russian nationalist groups, the main issues to which local constituencies usually react are the construction of mosques and women wearing Islamic clothes in educational institutions, two elements where “Islam” erupts on the urban landscape and is potentially seen as a threat to social norms and behaviors. Yet Muslim communities are willing to take multiple conciliatory steps, such as not using loudspeakers for prayer calls (adhan)—they call to prayer by SMS or WhatsApp—and limiting the height of the minaret. Mosques are built quite small, able to receive those committed to Friday prayers; during the main Islamic festivities, which attract several hundred, if not thousands, of people, they cannot host all the participants and have to either rent a nearby building or allow people to pray in the adjacent streets, which is usually not well received by local residents.

Success or failure in establishing a mosque depends in large part on the Muslim community’s ability to secure powerbrokers by building relationships of trust with the local authorities and law enforcement agencies. This role is usually played by businessmen who are already well established in the city’s social fabric—often Azerbaijani or Tatar—but sometimes imams themselves appear as powerful mediators: the former imam of Murmansk, Ali Visam Bardvil, originally from the Middle East but active in Russia since 1993 and now a high dignitary of the Council of Muftis, was, for instance able to open a prayer room in Severomorsk, the closed city hosting Northern Fleet personnel—a sign of deep trust from the military authorities. Muslim communities also develop cooperative frameworks with the authorities. As early as 2002, CDUMR signed an agreement with the administration of the Yamalo-Nenets district (regularly renewed since) in which the Islamic institution committed to “control” Islam in exchange for financial support from the regional authorities for mosque construction and the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). Since 2012, Yamalo-Nenets mosques have engaged, under the supervision of the Federal Migration Services’ local branch, in offering Russian language classes to new migrants from Central Asia to help address integration issues.

Finding the right sponsorship likewise appears to be a critical component of success. Russia’s secular legislation forbids the state from providing financial support for the construction of religious institutions—a policy not always respected regarding the Orthodox Church—but the municipal authorities can show goodwill by offering certain plots of land at a reduced price. Another key factor relates to the ability of the Muslim community to be unified in its strategy and get the support of an Islamic entrepreneur willing to invest funds in a mosque. Gubkinsky mosque was, for instance, funded by Aslanbek Salamov, the former director of railway subsidiary ABS-Story. The Norilsk and Salekhard mosques were both funded by the same Tatar entrepreneur, Mitkhad Bikmeev, originally from Norilsk. In Nadym, it was the director of Nadymgorgaz and local MP for the presidential party United Russia, Azat Safin, of Tatar origin, who financed the construction of a mosque in 2008. In the two energy hearts of Russia, the Khanty-Mansi and Yamalo-Nenets districts, energy companies themselves contribute to funding the construction of mosques as a sign of good will toward the large number of migrants working for them. As early as 1996, Lukoil paved the way by building a mosque in Kogalym; those of Langepas, Pokachyi, Uray, and Salekhard benefited from funds from the company Yamal LNG.

In Yakutia, all mosques or prayer rooms were built with the support of local influential businessmen: a restauranteur and farmer from Azerbaijan in Neryungri, two entrepreneurs from Azerbaijan in Mirnyi, a senior police officer and a Nogai from Karachaevo-Cherkessia in Lensk, and an Avar businessman in Ust’-Kut, on the border between Yakutia and the Irkutsk oblast. In other cities, such as Pechora, in the absence of a powerful private entrepreneur, the community turned to the infamous head of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, to ask for help. But the latter’s commitment—he sent his press secretary—generated protests from local constituencies and from the Orthodox Church. In 2012, after a popular vote, the municipality eventually decided to refuse the sale of a plot to the Muslim community.

Yakutsk, one of the older Arctic cities, has a long history of interaction with Islam. The first mosque was planned to be built for the Tatar and Bashkir community in 1914, but the project was stopped by the First World War and then the Bolshevik revolution. A small mosque was finally erected in 1996 and largely rebuilt and expanded in 2005 and then in 2012—thanks to US$2 million in funding collected by the community—making it the world’s largest Arctic mosque. The two-story edifice is able to accommodate up to 3,000 people. Among the wealthy devotees, some contribute in cash; others use their business connections to bring in carpets from Turkey and stones from Dagestan at a cheaper price. For their part, ordinary Muslims make small donations and work for free to keep the mosque in shape. The mosque receives up to 5,000 people during the main Islamic festivities. Another mosque has been built in Mirnyi, the diamond capital of Yakutia, as well as a prayer room in the more southerly city of Neryungri that publishes the journal Islam v Iakutii (Islam in Yakutia).

In two other cities, Norilsk and Salekhard, the Muslim community also succeeded in erecting mosques, in 1998 and 1999, respectively. In both cases, the community was able to bring together all the components needed for a happy outcome: they presented a unified front to the municipality, negotiated all aspects of the construction and the regulation of religious activities with the authorities, and had a powerful entrepreneur help “normalize” the project in the eyes of the administration and the public. For two decades now, the mosques in both cities have occupied quite visible locations downtown and have been valorized in the branding sponsored by their respective city administrations, often represented on promotional flyers as a sign that a modern, multicultural environment is developing in the Arctic.

In other cases, the Muslim community has failed to secure a proper religious building. Such is the case, for instance, in the Murmansk region, even though it has three registered Muslim communities, the largest of which is in Murmansk itself. The city’s Muslim association broached the idea of a mosque as early as 1998, but it was stopped by public protests and the reluctance of the municipal authorities. In 2004, the project was revived and the city was prepared to allocate the mosque land on one of the main avenues downtown, yet the project again failed: the community became divided over how to collect funds to build the mosque, while the public protested that the land allocated to the mosque was too central and that the height of the minaret would exceed that of the bell tower of the Orthodox Church—a combination that pushed the authorities to retreat. The Muslim association was finally able to buy a small house in a suburb of Murmansk to use as a religious prayer room. The question of a central mosque remains on the table, however, especially as the community attracts up to 500 people every Friday and as many as 3,000 people for the main Islamic festivities.

In Vorkuta, mosque construction had to be halted due to a lack of funding. The land allocated by the municipality in 2006, in one of the city’s suburbs, remains empty, with only the foundation of the mosque built in 2010. The financial support of a Dagestani businessman could not be secured. For the time being, the community rents a big apartment even further from downtown, which it has transformed into two (gender-segregated) prayer rooms.

Tensions around Alleged Islamic Radicalism in Yamal

Other Arctic cities have had a much more troubled history with Islam. Examples include Gubkinsky and—even more prominently—Novyi Urengoy, one of Russia’s beating oil and gas hearts. The mosque in Gubkinsky was closed in 2013, officially on the grounds that it did not comply with anti-fire legislation, but in reality because of a fight between the community and the Central Spiritual Board over the nomination of an imam. The community was accused of extremism—two of its young people of Dagestani origin had joined the Caucasus Emirate, the North Caucasian jihadist organization calling for the creation of a caliphate—and disbanded.

More or less at the same time, a relatively similar story exploded in Novyi Urengoy, with much greater resonance. Indeed, the new Novyi Urengoy mosque (the city also has a smaller, older one), built in 1996 using the community’s funds, had become by that time one of the most active in Russia, and undoubtedly the most active in the Far North, with up to 3,000 attendees at Friday prayers. It developed medresse activities on the side, offering Quranic classes; published a small newspaper, Istina; and participated in televised shows on the local channel and in the city’s local life. Here, too, a vivid conflict emerged between the community and the CDUMR, with accusations by the latter that the community could not prevent the radicalization of some of its members, after which it was closed and the mosque destroyed by bulldozers in 2015.

However, there is another story behind the story: the Yamal mosques were under the umbrella of the Spiritual Board for Russia’s Asian part, in a tense struggle with the CDUMR. As we mentioned earlier, the Asian Spiritual Board was famous for its insubordination vis-à-vis Russia’s main Islamic institutions and came under attack by the CDUMR for purportedly supporting extremism. There were also some internal reckonings, probably involving shadow economy schemes: the long-time imam of Novyi Urengoy, Isamitdin Akbarov, a Russian citizen of Uzbek origin, was suspected to have belonged to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorist group. He was killed in 2010 and his son, also an imam, had to flee Russia for Istanbul in 2016. In the event of institutional fights, the Russian authorities tend to side with those they consider their most reliable partner, almost always the Central Spiritual Board. They therefore supported the latter in its gradual takeover of the Asian Board’s mosques in Siberia, with Yamal the hottest point of conflict. For some local stakeholders, such as Khamiz Dmitri Chernomorchenko, who led the religious community of Novyi Urengoy until 2011, the motive of the struggle was purely political and financial: the city’s Muslim community being a rich one, as almost all those in Yamal are, the Central Spiritual Board wanted to secure its stranglehold over it.

The complex case of the Yamal mosques—the only Arctic region where four mosques were closed for “extremism”: Gubkinsky, Novyi Urengoy, Noyabrsk, and Purpe—gives us some insight into the issue of radical Islam in the Far North. The lack of a longstanding Islamic presence in the region and the relatively low theological level of local imams does not help Muslim communities to deal effectively with those attracted to radical Islam. To this should be added the social inequalities present in many Arctic cities—both those suffering economic depression, such as monocities whose main industry collapsed, like Vorkuta, and the booming oil and gas cities of Yamal—which contribute to swaying some young people toward radical discourses, which they see as a fight for social justice and a quest for social status. At the same time, the very controlled character of Russia’s Arctic cities, with their omnipresent and powerful security services and the intimate interaction between the main industries and the local administration, does not leave underground Islam much room for maneuver. Compared to many other Russian metropolises, Islam is much more controlled and exposed in the Far North, and people with Salafi orientations have to be more discreet to avoid attracting the attention of the security services.

Yet radical Islamism has shaken Arctic Muslim communities. The leader of the DUM of the Asian part of Russia, Nafigulla Ashirov, is regularly decried by Russian media for his allegedly radical preaching, supporting the Taliban and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Several imams in the Yamal region, especially the one from Novyi Urengoy, likewise seem to have preached Salafi and/or Deobandi Islam against the moderate mainstream. In 2015, the Noyabrsk mosque found itself under the media spotlight: one of its members, an ethnic Russian convert to Islam, Aleksandr Zemlianka, renamed Jihadi-Tolik, who had left the city to join the Islamic State in Syria, beheaded another Russian citizen, accusing him of being a Russian spy. The mosque leadership had to recognize that about 30 of its members had left for Syria, and the local imam, Aslan Khuranov, has been suspected of pushing a “non-traditional” (read: Salafi) interpretation of Islam. In 2017, the Yakutsk mosque, too, was searched by the security services after one of its members, originally from Tajikistan, was arrested while departing to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Underground mosques may contribute, although not systematically, to the rise of Salafi Islam when they are led by migrants who were radicalized in the past, for instance former members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or of radical jamaats. However, these cases do not display any Far North specifics and can be observed in the whole of Russia, one of the main sources of volunteer fighters to the Syrian-Iraqi war theater.

What Makes Polar Islam “Polar”? Adapting Practices

Does the presence of Islam in the Far North mean that it has simply extended to a new location, without implications for practices and attitudes? We think there are several elements that make Islam in the cities of the Russian Far North specific enough to merit the adjective “polar”: the adaptation of Islamic practices and traditions to an Arctic climate, the management of the remoteness of Muslim communities, and the integration into local, Arctic identities.

Adapting to Climate and Remoteness

First, Islam has to adapt to a climatic environment for which its religious practices were not originally designed. Arctic mosques are usually built on a Turkish model—for historical reasons, as Tatars were long the avant-garde of Russia’s Islam and had strong ties with the Ottoman Empire—following either the model of rural mosque (more sober) or urban mosque (with more Oriental bulbs). Yet Arctic mosques also need to adhere to very specific construction requirements. Like any other concrete building built on permafrost, their foundations have to be based on stilts (svainyi fundament), reinforced with a ventilation system (kholodnoe podvetrennoe podval’e) that prevents them from sinking during seasonal permafrost thaw. Arctic mosques must also be able to resist a high level of snow for several months a year: their roofs have to be made oblique and not flat in order to remove snow more easily. Buildings also face very strong, biting winds—Norilsk, for instance, is the fourth windiest city in the world. As a result, its mosque’s minaret has been made octagonal, not square, to cope with erosion due to polar storms (purga).

Second, religious practices have likewise had to adapt to the environment. For instance, because of the cold weather, the ablution room, which is usually, in the rest of the Islamic world, in the yard outside the building, has to be moved inside the mosque, making it necessary to have an extra room inside—or even two, as men and women are separated. Another change in religious practices concerns death rituals. In the majority of cases, bodies are sent back to their home region, in order to be buried close to their family. Yet a growing number of former migrants are now so well integrated into Russian society and the Arctic social fabric that they wish to be buried there, contributing to changing practices. Many of Russia’s Arctic cities now have a small section of their municipal cemetery open to Muslims. In Islamic tradition, the dead body has to be buried without a coffin, directly in the soil, in white sheets, turned in the direction of Mecca, and at a depth of only 0.5-1 meters. But these rules cannot be applied in Arctic conditions: bodies have to be buried at least 2 meters deep in order to deal with permafrost seasonal thaw, and some municipalities mandate that a coffin be used.

The third set of specificities relates to the remoteness of Polar Islam from its historical cradle. Because of the alternation between polar nights and polar days, the timing of prayers cannot follow the cycle of nature of more regulated climates and has to be adapted. Already in 922, the famous Islamic traveler Ibn Fadlân, ambassador of the Abassid caliph al-Muqtadir, described in his Risâla the practices of the Volga’s Bulgars (in today’s Tatarstan), recently converted to Islam, including how the prayer of the sunset and that of the night (maghrib and isha’a) were joined into one in order to deal with the climatic conditions. Later, in the 14th century, another traveler, Ibn Battuta, echoed this remark, mentioning some irregularities in prayer time among the Tatars.

For long, the established tradition was for each mosque to select a southern city (usually Tyumen or Krasnoyarsk) or Mecca itself, to be its reference point, and follow its prayer timing. There is nothing unique in this practice: Canada’s Arctic Muslim communities do the same, using a timetable for Toronto or Edmonton, for instance. Yet in Russia the process has gradually been centralized; it is now the CDUMR or the Council of Muftis, depending on the affiliation of each mosque, that circulates the appointed time of prayers in the Far North. This timetable is even more important during the month of Ramadan: even if the calendar follows a more southerly location, when Ramadan happens during the summer months, it often means fasting for 16-18 hours a day.

Another product of remoteness is the strong ecumenism of Arctic mosques. Officially, all theological trends are welcome: the mosques are not dissociated into Shiia versus Sunni (the Azerbaijanis are the only post-Soviet Muslims to be Twelver Shiia, with the rest being Sunni). Shiia Azerbaijanis rarely come to the mosque except for the main Islamic festivities, and tend to pray at home, but they are welcome if they wish, and the fact that some wealthy Azerbaijani businessmen contribute to mosque construction is never interpreted as having a “Shiia” color. Nor is division by schools of Sunni jurisprudence respected: both Hanafi (mostly Central Asians) and Shafi’i (mostly North Caucasians) pray together, while Sufi groups tend to pray at home or in shared private spaces. The majority of those who attend Friday prayers have limited theological knowledge and are therefore not necessarily aware of all the differences in rituals. That being said, the conflicts that currently divide the global Ummah find resonance in Russia’s Arctic: the proselytizing Tablighi Jamaat has come to several Far North cities, as have the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir (all officially forbidden by Russian legislation). More broadly, Salafi teaching is on the rise among young migrants, who see in it an ideology of protest against social injustice. Mosques maintain religious unity on the surface, welcoming everybody, but the communities themselves may be informally torn apart by different religious trends. Last but not least, the mosque is also supra-ethnic: it receives every Muslim no matter the nationality of the imam or of the mosque’s patron. In the majority of cases, imams and funders may be Tatar, Bashkir, or Azerbaijani, but everyday followers are mostly North Caucasians, Uzbeks, or Tajiks. Preaching takes place in Russian, the only language shared by all these communities.

For decades, the inhabitants of Arctic cities have described themselves as living on an island separated from the mainland—European Russia, often named “the continent” (materik)—and this tradition continues today. Among Muslim communities there prevails an even stronger feeling of being far away in two respects: first from their home region and second from the rest of the Ummah. In the 1990s and early 2000s, as migrants were often seasonal, they tended to keep their charity donations for their home mosque, leaving the Arctic Islamic communities quite poor and unfunded. But this has since changed, and the “rootedness” of Muslims in Arctic cities has empowered mosques to generate some funds. Solidarity mechanisms such as sadaka (voluntary beneficence) have developed, especially in the event of death or illness, with a collective fund managed by the mosque to return a body to the deceased’s home region, to buy medications for sick people, or to help a member in temporary financial difficulty.

Halal Food and the Birth of an Islamic-Arctic Blending

Remoteness from the rest of the Ummah creates particular challenges with regard to everyday consumption practices such as halal food. Buying and consuming halal not only entail following Islamic rules, but also reinforces the migrant’s own identity and the feeling of belonging to a community dissociated from the mass of urbanites. Halal meat, certified by the Council of Muftis for the whole of Russia based on Malaysian standards, is difficult to import to Arctic cities: some of them lack railways or roads and can be served only by plane and river-based transportation. To solve the problem, each mosque is in touch with a Muslim businessman who regularly (at least once a month) imports wholesale halal meat from Moscow or Russia’s European cities and sells it individually to families by WhatsApp or through the mosque. Those Arctic cities with the largest Muslim communities have seen halal meat (mostly chicken; sometimes beef, lamb, and horse) appear in supermarkets, as observed in Vorkuta and Salekhard.

But the halal brand today is broader than just meat, relating to almost every product targeting Muslim consumers. Many Arctic mosques therefore also serve as small “groceries” for Islamic products, selling perfumes, oils, toothpaste, and other products, often from Gulf countries, including items from Mecca. The preoccupation with hygienist practices and the notion of “clean” food (al-tayyibât, things that are at once clean in themselves and obtained through clean and lawful Islamic means) appears to be even more important in these remote cities, where scandals related to fake halal products (such as sausages that had pork in them) have shaken Muslim communities. Debates about what is licit in Islam—which jobs do not contradict Islamic values, the rise of Islamic banking, etc.—keep Muslim communities busy searching for answers. Yet other markers of Islamic identity, such as Islamic women’s fashion, have not—yet?—appeared in Russia’s Arctic cities: if some women wear a black hijab, with documented cases in Yakutsk and Mirnyi, it remains a marginal trend.

Last but not least, Muslim communities face the issue of integrating their religion into their newly acquired Arctic identity. Migrants themselves seem to focus mostly on sharing the foundation myth of Severiane, “the people from the North,” a name that the old, pioneering Soviet generations carry with pride. It is said that the Severiane have unique qualities: fulfilled in their work, they are not afraid of physical challenges and are hospitable and sharing because Arctic conditions lead to solidarity. They carry the virtues of late socialism, such as personal fulfillment, and curb consumerism. They are often represented by geologists or specialized engineers—heroes of Soviet industrialization—and celebrate gender equality and women’s success in traditionally male-dominated professions. Migrants largely honor the pioneering atmosphere of Russia’s Arctic cities, insisting on the fact that “everybody is a migrant here” and therefore that everyday interethnic tensions are lower than in the country’s main metropolises.

All Muslim communities try to put down roots in their new hometowns. They cultivate the memory of the first Muslims present in the city and are usually able to identify the “founding fathers” of the community. Those who live in a former Gulag town also rely on the memory of Muslim prisoners. For instance, in Salekhard, the mosque is built on the territory of a former Tatar cemetery (which created several polemics and was not well received by some pious Muslims); it was given to the community by the municipal authorities as part of a process of rehabilitation of those repressed during the Soviet era. Many play on the brand of being “the northernmost mosque in the world”—a title that is in fact held by the Norilsk mosque, even if the Vorkuta imam has tried to capture the slogan. The Vorkuta imam imagines his future mosque as perfectly integrated into its Arctic and Russian environment: it will be made of white stone in a nod to the snow, while the domes will be made from birch trees, Russia’s most symbolic tree.

Muslim religious and entrepreneurial leaders also look at a broader Arctic brand. The Arctic—as well as Siberia—is a rising image-maker in Russia, used by many cosmetics and organic products, with a three-fold goal: promoting “green” products (by insisting, for instance, on the role of organic herbs or flowers in their composition); forging associations with the regional branding of some of Russia’s cities; and benefiting from the wave of economic patriotism and the “Made in Russia” slogan. Several Muslim entrepreneurs have decided to invest in that market and merge it with the brand of Islamic products, which are likewise organic and said to be known for their curative properties. Some Muslim entrepreneurs have, for instance, begun producing jams made of local, Siberian berries, branding them as Arctic. They plan to develop halal reindeer meat, as well as to offer a halal version of Siberian river fish, famous in Russian cuisine.

Their market is comprised not only of Muslim consumers who would prioritize halal products no matter what but also of average Russian citizens who may be sensitive to that ecological branding. Two firms from Yamal, Nyda-Resurs and Vozrozhdenie, based in Nadym, presented Arctic halal products at Russia’s main halal fair in 2018 in Kazan, targeting not only Russian citizens but also the broader Islamic market, even negotiating with a Saudi firm. Nyda-Resurs also concluded an agreement with the Yamal-Nenets regional administration to target the halal market of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Here, too, what is happening in Russia is not unique: a Norwegian start-up selling premium iceberg water targets mostly the Muslim market, known to be sensitive to the question of purity and whose rejection of alcohol means they are more willing to spend money on water and juice brands.

The debate around reindeer meat offers a good insight into the competition for an Islamic Arctic identity. As Muslim communities labor to find local meat they can process in a halal way, the firm Nyda-Resurs decided to open a halal reindeer meat business, taking advantage of the presence of the animals in the Yamal peninsula. In preparation for the Islamic festivities of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha (known in the post-Soviet space as Uraza Bayram and Kurban Bayram), the Nyda-Resurs CEO, of Tatar origin, negotiated with a Nenets farm to buy 100 deer, to be sacrificed for the end of the Ramadan fast. But the indigenous community, for whom reindeer is an important source of food and raw materials and a symbol of their traditional way of life, was shocked to see deer slaughtered in accordance with Islamic practice, contending that reindeer, as the emblematic and sacred animals of the Nenets, must be slaughtered following Nenets traditions. The businessman therefore had to look for other partners, turning to a collective farm dependent on the local authorities. In 2018, 200 reindeer was slaughtered in Nadym, but the success of the operation remains limited so far: even if several Muslim businessmen have attempted to present reindeer meat as healthy, it has not become popular among Muslim communities, which are not accustomed to its strong smell and prefer lamb, the recognized meat for Islamic festivities.

Finding ways to negotiate the place of Islam and its status as a legitimate actor in the construction of Arctic identity therefore means interacting with the symbolic status of indigenous peoples. While their prestige is lower in Russia than in other circumpolar regions, they cannot be ignored. The tensions around the use of reindeer meat confirm the risk of conflicting identity postures, and Muslim entrepreneurs’ efforts to conquer the Arctic/Siberian “organic” products market may also seem to impinge on a niche traditionally considered to belong to indigenous communities. Nonetheless, mechanisms of cooperation could emerge. In Canada, for instance, Muslim communities have found a balance between Ramadan obligations and revering Inuit local culture by cooking the traditional evening meal, iftar, with reindeer rather than with beef or lamb.


The birth of a Polar Islam epitomizes several current circumpolar societal trends. Migration flows deeply transform the urban fabric by creating a more multinational and multiconfessional environment that reshuffles the cards of urban identities—from Alaska to Russia through Scandinavia. In all these Arctic cities, the strong feeling of being in a pioneer community where everyone is a newcomer helps Muslim communities integrate into a dynamic and fast-evolving socioeconomic environment. Yet the broad trend of securitizing Islam impacts the local social fabric and Muslim communities, which often face anxieties from the city authorities or the residents regarding the display of Islamic symbols on urban landscapes.

In Russia, the remoteness of these Arctic cities from the rest of the mainland, and to an even greater degree from the rest of the Ummah, has given birth to some local specificities that show Islam’s high degree of adaptability to different contexts. The industrial nature of the majority of Arctic cities also plays a role in shaping a specific socioeconomic culture, with both solidarity with and competition between inhabitants. This may contribute to accentuating sociocultural vulnerabilities among some young Muslims, who—disconnected from their communities of origin and its solidarity networks and finding themselves in a difficult professional environment—see in radical ideologies a new personal quest for social justice and salvation.

More broadly, the growth of Polar Islam confirms the—often understudied—major role of Russia in the current globalization of Islam. As in Europe, Muslims in Russia have had to formulate a way of being Muslim in non-traditionally Muslim and long-secularized environments. With a growing Muslim population (both national and foreign), the emergence of “second-generation” migrants well integrated into Russian society, and an active Middle East policy, Russia has become a critical country in assessing and influencing the future of Islam and its relationship with its European neighbors.

The blossoming of this Polar Islam confirms that Islam is no longer geographically segregated in its traditional regions, such as the North Caucasus and the Volga-Urals; it has spread to all the country’s big cities, even in the Far North and Far East, and made a visible entrance into some new rural territories in Southern Russia. Its growing role in critical regions such as the Khanty-Mansi and Yamalo-Nenets autonomous okrugs, the two gas hearts of Russia, means that Islam is now embedded into Russia’s future in novel and rapidly-evolving ways that merit our attention. For the Russian authorities, this transformation requires that they cease to interpret Islam as a religion for localized ethnic minorities and open up to a view of Islam as a broader societal trend that interacts with the country’s workforce transformations and the reshaping of the urban social fabric. In this respect, Arctic cities are at the forefront of Russia’s transformations, with several bottom-up dynamics that show the high degree of context-sensitivity and flexibility of these social transformations.